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Delta Sigma Theta Sorority celebrates 100 years of black sisterhood in D.C.

By Michael Livingston II,

Sara Horton and her mother, Margaret Horton, walked side by side across the Howard University campus Friday, united not only by their mother-daughter bond but in sisterhood.

The Hortons are members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and they were on their way to meet more sisters — busloads of sisters — at Burr Gymnasium.

There, in crimson peacoats buttoned high over cream sweaters, the women greeted one another, hugged and posed for photographs before embarking on Impact Projects, bringing comfort, expertise and some home cooking to 22 hospitals, schools, community kitchens and shelters in the area. The Deltas, who’ve come to the District this weekend from as far away as California, wouldn’t have wanted to start their centennial celebrations any way other than with a morning dedicated to serving the community that was born 100 years ago.

Members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, the Deltas’ brother organization, chauffeured their sorors in golf carts to the Mecca, as Howard is sometimes called as it is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious black university and home to many Greek-letter organizations. Other Deltas chose to stroll onto the campus, reminiscing about pledge days and probate shows. Sorors joined hands to form pyramids — one of the shared symbols of their sisterhood.

“I was very pleased, but I was not surprised,” said Margaret Horton of her daughter becoming a Delta. Sara, who grew up around the sorority, says she received no pressure from her mother to join: “She said if it’s going to interfere with your studies, then don’t do it.”

Founded at Howard by 22 African American undergraduates on Jan. 13, 1913, the Delta Sigma Theta Sororityhas more than 200,000 members. Notable Deltas have includedcivil rights activists Mary McLeod Bethune and Dorothy Irene Height, singers Aretha Franklin and Lena Horne, and politicians Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan.

Delta women have marched for women’s suffrage, participated in public policy in the nation’s capital and hosted countless mentorship and service programs — all in an effort to create change in their community. The historically black sorority is not a monument but a movement, said Delta’s 24th president, Cynthia M.A. Butler-McIntyre, two years ago at the 50th national convention.

Deltas have preached innovation since their founders planned changes to the first sisterhood they rushed — Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.

The genesis of Delta, and the root of the AKA-Delta rivalry, was on Oct. 11, 1912, when 22 women were initiated into AKA, then the only black women’s sorority. Of those 22, seven were elected officers, including Myra Davis Hemmings, who became chapter president. Almost immediately after taking office, the newcomers voiced their displeasure with the direction the organization was heading.

They thought AKA was too focused on social activities instead of social activism. They voted to reconstruct AKA from within — the name, colors, symbols, everything had to go, they said. AKA incorporator Nellie Quander rejected this notion and gave the women a deadline to end their plans. Instead, the 22 decided to separate and formed Delta Sigma Theta.

“Delta is about change,” said Karen Stapleton, 47, a clinical social worker from Alexandria. Stapleton was initiated into the Alpha Eta chapter at Virginia State University in 1987. She said being in this sorority gave her a deeper connection to fellow black women.

“I could travel anywhere in the United States and be called ‘sister,’ ” Stapleton said.

Many black women of prominence are members of one of these two century-old sororities. You will also find many AKAs and Deltas in the same families — mothers, sisters, godmothers, aunts.

“My mother is an AKA, and she was a little shocked,” said Meridith Merchant of Los Angeles on her decision to become a Delta. Initiated into the Pi chapter at the University of California at Los Angeles, Merchant says her mother understood that she had to go with what was in her heart. “It’s still an interesting battle within the family,” said Merchant, a doctor who had flown across the country to join the weekend’s events.

Erin Keith, 21, president of the Alpha chapter of Delta Sigma Theta at Howard University, says that belonging to a sorority with such great women has been a humbling experience. “We are all one sisterhood,” Keith said. “We all strive to carry out the ideals of our founders and what it means to be a Delta woman.”

Keith has known Delta her entire life; her mother and godmother are Deltas, as well as some cousins. A Detroit native, Keith says the the interaction she had with the Detroit alumnae chapter led her to seek out other Deltas in college. “They were the women I looked up to,” she said.

The Deltas will color the District crimson and cream this weekend. The sisters’ presence in the city, just as it was in 1913, will be felt immediately as they bring their spirit of change to the District.

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